Saturday 30 December 2017

A winter day on Morven

The period since Christmas has been quite cold, with temperatures down to -8 Celsius overnight, while a northerly airstream has brought snow showers. I was looking for an opportunity to get out and about and a day of clear weather on 28th December looked perfect.

I headed the short distance over to Cromar to climb Morven - there was markedly less snow on the ground here than at home but plenty higher on the hill.  Morven is an Anglicisation of "Mor-Bheinn" (big hill), and it lives up to the name- a bulky dome which stands apart and seems to tower over the surrounding countryside.  I've climbed this hill several times and it always seems to take more effort than you'd think it should. On the drive across I noted the shroud of cloud across the higher parts of the hill, and the banner of snow blowing from the summit - there would be some lively conditions near the top.....

The shortest route to the hill from near Balhennie is the one most folk use, it's short but quite steep and pretty much out and back.  I looked for a route with a bit more variety and settled on starting from the minor road north of Loch Davan, taking a track past Raebush and Redburn which passes through a pleasant wood before heading uphill onto the moor.  The views up to the northeast are extensive, beyond Cromar to the hills near my home.  Snow showers were moving across much of the higher ground, but up to this point I was in clear conditions.

A clearance in the cloud over the top of Morven offered the hope of a summit view, but I was still three kilometres from the top and the cloud soon closed back in.  My route followed tracks curving across the broad saddle to the left of this image, then I went up more steeply, aiming for the right hand edge of the summit ridge.  The going was initially tough in deep, snow covered heather, but as height is gained the vegetation becomes much shorter and the underfoot easier....

...though the conditions were really fierce as the summit area was gained.  The cloud was combining with a 50mph tearingly cold northwesterly wind which was raising a considerable groundstorm of pulverised snow.  This image was taken in a brief lull in the wind and shows the best visibility for some time!  To add to the fun, a heavy snow shower arrived so I battened down and put on ski goggles to maintain some limited visibility.  This was full-on winter and I found myself really enjoying the wild conditions. 

A line of battered fenceposts is a useful guide towards the summit; today adorned with foot long frost feathers.  These feathers are formed when a cold, strong wind deposits moisture onto the windward side of rocks and other objects; the feathers show the direction of the wind as they grow directly upwind and can build up to a considerable size.

The now shower eased as I was heading across the flattish ground of the summit ridge on a compass bearing and I was pleased to see the cairn emerge from the whiteness right on cue.

This wasn't a day for a leisurely snack whilst enjoying the summit vistas!  A brief crouch behind the trig point to set up bearings to the track below and I headed back along the ridge - the wind by now was really biting and was pushing me bodily sideways in the stronger gusts.  At the end of the summit ridge I took another bearing and headed dead SE down into the murk towards a track which passes to the south of Morvern.  The snow whirling off the ridge was all being deposited down here, but not in sufficient quantity to constitute an avalanche hazard.  It did make for a speedy descent through the heather and I was soon on the track and into much more benign conditions.

A look back from the point where the track heads steeply back down to Raebush; the cloud banner still streaming off the top of the hill, conditions would still be as fierce up there.  At 872m/2860ft, Morvern isn't the biggest of hills, but once again it had given me a terrific winter day.

Sunday 24 December 2017

Happy Christmas

Wishing you peace, health and happiness wherever you may be this Christmas

Thursday 21 December 2017

Turning point at the solstice stones

The north east of Scotland is rich in neolithic monuments, and in particular there are many hundreds of stone circles and standing stones.  One particular type of circle, the recumbent circle is found only here in Aberdeenshire (nearly 100 examples) and some in the south west of Ireland. 

One of the nearest circles to home is also one of the more complete examples, at Cothiemuir Hill.  I've written about this circle previously here and here, and I continue to find the place absolutely compelling.  Now within a wood, the circle is on a low hill and would have had good open views during its period of use around 2700-2500 BC.

The 2.9 metre tall west flanker is aligned precisely to the midwinter moon when viewed from the centre of the circle.  This is the orientation of almost all the recumbent circles, so it's no coincidence. Even more remarkably, the alignment is designed to frame the standstill moon which occurs every 18.6 did the neolithic people calculate this?!  The movement of the setting sun seems also to have played a part in the alignment, and I've tried to recreate this by taking an image offset from the centre of the circle a few days before the winter solstice.

It really isn't difficult to imagine the people who built this sophisticated and massive undertaking marking out the days shortening, recording the apparent two day standstill at the solstice, and then the slow lengthening of the days as the year is reborn.  Nor is it hard to empathise with why this mattered to them so much.

We try to visit as close to the winter solstice as we can, not from any new-age belief, just from a simple, instinctive feeling that this is their time in the year.

Sunday 17 December 2017

A disproportionate reward

 My friend Duncan has recently written about the fact that when difficult things are attempted, the rewards are all the greater.  It's a sentiment that I wholeheartedly agree with, but sometimes - just occasionally - there's reward out of all proportion to the effort expended.

A weekend morning shortly before Christmas, and a busy day of preparations ahead.  I took a morning walk in intensely cold air, just as the sun was rising.  Near to the solstice, there's precious little daylight here and if it dawns fair like this, it's a bonus.

 The morning sun flushed the hills and forest behind our house a delicate pink shade, the air was still and this was to be the last day of clear, cold weather before a run of Atlantic low pressure systems.  It would have been perfect for a mountain day, but family commitments come first.  I resigned myself with the thought that the hills are always waiting, and headed home.

 By early afternoon the things we'd planned were done, and it was suggested that maybe I'd like to go for a walk.....  There was just two hours until sunset and initially I thought to walk close by.  But then I remembered how good the hills had looked that morning; I hastily packed a rucksack and headed the few miles towards the car park for Millstone Hill.    Setting off an hour before sunset I climbed steeply up the path through trees which were sparkling with ice on every twig.

 A brief pause at a favourite viewpoint looking west along the valley of the River Don and I continued uphill, hoping to beat the sunset to the summit.

 Although my pace was fast, there were scenes which just couldn't be rushed past.....

 ....including some rather festive looking Spruce trees.....

 The summit of Millstone Hill is reached easily in less than an hour, and as the domed top is reached there's one of the great "reveals" of the north eastern hills as the Mither Tap of Bennachie comes suddenly into view, rearing into the sky and always looking far higher than its 518m/1700ft height.

 To the southwest, the sun was setting in a searing blaze, the movement clearly discernable as it skimmed below the skyline.  Here was reward far in excess of what I could have expected for the 300m climb - and there was more to come.

Well after sunset, when I was getting chilled by a sharp wind from the north west, the sky once again flushed pink, this time the clouds lit by a sun below the visible horizon.

 Gradually the colour faded and Bennachie seemed to stand even further forward in the twilight.  I briefly considered climbing to the Mither Tap, but this would have made me late home and we had a Christmas tree to decorate.....

 So instead I headed down to the bealach between Millstone Hill ad Bennachie, known as the Heather Brig, before taking the track which circles around the western flank of Millstone.  As the temperature plummeted below freezing there was a subtle change in conditions underfoot.  The soft swish of unconsolidated snow changed within a few minutes to the squeal and crunch of icy powder,  To the west, the last of the sunset smouldered away - and an Owl called from nearby.  It was truly a beautiful evening to be out on the hill.

 My entire winters evening walk took a little over two hours, and had given me a disproportionate reward for the outlay of effort.  I got home energised yet calmed - and ready for decorating the Christmas tree!

Saturday 9 December 2017

A winter morning's walk

Two days of snow showers borne on cold north westerly winds in the wake of a deep Atlantic low pressure system have turned the landscapes of northern Scotland back to winter.  A morning walk in sub zero air was a bracing affair, but at least the wind has dropped.  The pre-dawn colour in the sky was delicate rather than blazing, and matched the scene really well. 

  Trees have become outlines of themselves, the snow frozen hard against trunks and branches.

The sun at this time of year doesn't rise until after 0830 and sets again before 1530, but there's beauty in the short daylight.  As the sky in the south east flushed pink, a trace of the shade was projected onto the snowy scene, the most delicate shade in the air.

The moon was still well up as the sun began to rise, but no longer the supermoon of some days ago.

As I turned for home on the last part of my walk, the sun rose above the hills across the Howe of Alford in a brief and brilliant flare of light.  Bright it may have been but there's little heat in the sun at these latitudes as we approach the winter solstice - it would stay below freezing for the whole day.

With scenery on a morning walk like this, it's impossible to dismiss winter as dull and dark......

Monday 4 December 2017

A Supermoon morning

The full moon of 3rd December was a "supermoon", the only one of 2017. A supermoon occurs when the moon's elliptical orbit brings it to the closest point (perigee) of an elliptical orbit. At perigee, the full moon can appear 14 percent larger and 30 percent brighter than a "regular" full moon.  The night had been clear and certainly well illuminated, but perhaps the most striking view we got was when the moon was setting beyond the hills behind our house.

The proximity to ground objects made the moon seem even larger as it appeared to rest in the crowns of a stand of larch trees, we could clearly see the movement as it passed the trees to drop below the ridge at 0748.  Shining through a corona in the cold air close to the ground in a beautiful wash of light, it was quite a spectacular, if perhaps not quite as stunning as the "blood moon" during the lunar eclipse on the winter solstice of  2010 - what a sight that was!

Meanwhile, at our backs the eastern sky was washed with pre-dawn pinks and golds.  What a super supermoon morning, another virtuoso natural performance!

Friday 1 December 2017

A pale and fleeting beauty

 November snowfalls are often fleeting events; deep snow disappears more quickly than might be thought.  Well after sunset and under a waxing gibbous moon the snow was a pale, marble white - what little colour there was in the landscape lay in the golden stubble in the fields and a delicate pink wash to the tops of the clouds.  It was to be a cold night with temperatures well below freezing.

 The sharp, frosty morning air was a real pleasure, the clean freshness mirrored in the pale shades just before the sun rose sufficiently to light he lower ground.


 When the sun did rise above the hills beyond the Howe of Alford, it was with a searing intensity which was in sharp contrast to the cool blues of the snowy fields.

The whole landscape was briefly lit with pink shades before the sun climbed higher and the light hardened.  Truly, winter has its own beauties.